Everyone knows that exercise has a protective effect on health and is key for a long life. What you might not know is that two of the strongest predictors of longevity are strength and muscle mass in the lower body.
For example, a 2005 study found that there was a close association between the degree of strength in the quadriceps and risk of mortality—that is, in a population of elderly men and women, those with the strongest legs had the lowest risk of dying over a 6-year period. Conversely, those with the weakest legs had the highest mortality risk.
The amount of muscle you have appears to be particularly important. Not only is muscle mass in the lower body linked with having less belly fat (the dangerous kind that is inflammatory and raises risk of heart disease), but it is also associated with longevity, especially in people with cancer and other diseases.
In a new study, patients with kidney disease (who suffer from nutritional problems that can impede the maintenance of muscle mass), there was a consistent association between quantity of muscle mass in the quadriceps and risk of death over a 4-year period.
It’s clear that everyone needs to focus on strength in the lower body, but the question is what type of exercise to use?
Squats are one of the best exercises for building lean mass in the muscles throughout the hip, thigh, and core areas. They also reduce your risk of knee and low back pain. For example, a study performed on elderly people with osteoarthritis showed that squat training resulted in less self-reported pain in the knees, better balance, and faster walking speed. Participants also had less evidence of chronic inflammation associated with arthritis.
Another benefit is mobility: Not only will squat training allow you to lift heavy things off the floor, but they make it easier to walk up and down the stairs, get up off of the ground, and perform other vigorous movements that are necessary for daily life. In fact, doctors are recommended to include a squat test in their patient’s check-ups because the ability to bend your knees while keeping the upper body upright is a useful predictor of overall health.
What Kind of Squats Should You Be Doing?
Everyone can start with body weight squats in which you take a stance about shoulder-width apart with the toes pointing out slightly, about 5°. Raise the chest to an upright position and look straight ahead. Begin bending at the knees, which should track in a line close to the border of the first and second toe. You want to go down as low as possible so that you achieve a full range-of-motion.
Ideally, you will go down to a point where your hips are below your knees, but if you’re not able to get down this far yet, just go down as far as feels comfortable for you. You can work on increasing range of motion by stretching your ankles and doing calf raises.
The following are more squat variations you can use to increase strength and muscle in the lower body for a long and healthy life:
Front-Foot Elevated Split Squats
Split squats are the ideal place to start a squat training journey because they allow you to master a simpler movement than the regular two-legged bilateral squat. Split squats also help overcome muscle imbalances within specific muscle groups and for better balance between the right and left sides of the body.
Start with the front foot-elevated split squat so that you learn to stabilize your core. You can load the front-foot elevated split squat with dumbbells or a cable machine, and once you’ve mastered that, move on to split squats with both feet on the ground.
One-and-a-quarter squats are when you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom, and come up quickly. This variation emphasizes neuromuscular control at the part of a squat where you are weakest. It also applies well to daily life, allowing you to control your body when getting up and down out of a chair or in and out of the car. Novices can start by doing bodyweight one-and-a-quarter squats and then progress to loading them with a barbell on the back.
Heels Elevated Squat
Elevating the heels by squatting on a wedge board or with 5 lb weight plates underneath your heels is a useful tool for novices and people with limited range-of-motion in the ankle joint. By elevating the heels you can go down all the way into a deep squat and you increase recruitment of the quadriceps muscle that is necessary for optimal knee stability.
Barbell Back Squats
Back squats are a great way to progress your training once you’ve developed baseline strength in the split squat and body weight squat. Start by gripping an empty barbell slightly wider than shoulder width on your back. Elbows should be below the bar. Begin by lowering yourself in a slow and controlled manner into a full squat, keeping your chest and head upright.
Although you will flex your hips slightly as you go into the bottom of the barbell back squat, try to avoid leaning too far forward because this places extra stress on the lower back. Stand up out of the squat powerfully, pause briefly in the top position, and then repeat.
Final Words: With these squat variations you should be well on your way to achieving peak levels of muscle and strength in the lower body. Including other lower body exercises like step-ups and deadlifts will support your squat training regimen. Also, be sure to include upper body exercises such as chest press, overhead press, chin-ups or pull downs, and rows in order to maximize total body muscle mass and strength for a long and healthy life.
Fukasawa, H., et al. Lower thigh muscle mass is associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in elderly hemodialysis patients. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017. 71, 64-69.
Newman, A., et al. Strength, But Not Muscle Mass, Is Associated With Mortality in the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study Cohort. Journal of Gerontology. 2006. 61A(1), 72-77.
Ruiz, J., et al. Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal. 2008. 337:a439